Many beer drinkers don't mind paying extra for a beer they really love. A high-end IPA can run $12 to $15 per bottle. Goose Island, a couple years ago, was easily able to fetch $60 for a bottle of "Bourbon County Brand Stout Rare." But even in the craft beer world, asking $200 for a single bottle is a bit extreme.
That doesn't stop Samuel Adams Utopias from quickly selling out when it hits shelves, though –or stop some retailers from hiking that price to $300 or more. There's a mystery and cachet to this beer that makes it stand apart from the crowd, though if you taste it, you might briefly wonder if it's even a beer at all.
"In Utopias, you will get a beer that breaks all the rules and boundaries for beer," says Jim Koch, co-founder and chairman of Boston Beer. "It's a labor of love. ... [And] it's a fair statement to say it's iconic."
Koch, of course, is himself an icon in the brewing world. He gave up a successful career as a business consultant to follow the family tradition of brewing beer in 1984, when he launched the Boston Beer Company, believing beer drinkers were ready for something different. In the early days, he had to walk from bar to bar with samples to convince owners to put his then-revolutionary product on their taps. Today, Boston Beer is the second-largest craft brewer in the country.
Entrepreneurial approach to innovation
It has achieved that lofty position in the beer industry through taking risks. Koch says he likes to hire "out of the box" thinkers with "messy résumés," since they help the company to think about its industry differently and constantly innovate. That encourages the company's culture, which encourages employees to think of themselves as craftspeople.
It's a philosophy that has worked. Last year Boston Beer reported net revenues of $906.4 million. And while it's not growing at the rate it once was, Samuel Adams Boston Lager can be easily found at bars, restaurants and stores around the country. And the company's more experimental (and more expensive) offerings sell out quickly. But none as quickly as Utopias.
Released every two years, Utopias returns to select retail shelves this November. (Because of the high ABV levels, it's illegal to sell the beer in some states, though.) It's a limited release, with only 13,000 bottles shipping nationwide. But despite the high price tag, Koch says the beer really isn't a big money maker for the company.
"We don't lose money on this, but... if you were a private equity firm you'd say 'Why the hell are you doing this?'," he says. "Everyone thinks businesses are economically rational all the time. Some are. A lot aren't. We've been successful following our passions, because we've led and a lot of people have followed— both brewers and drinkers. So I feel like if I'm following my passion, it's going to be just fine."
There's nothing traditional about Utopias, and that goes far beyond the price tag. You don't pour it into a 12 oz. glass. 1 oz is the recommended size. And while some high-alcohol beers might hit 12 percent ABV, this one weighs in at a staggering 28 percent (give or take a point, depending on the year). And rather than the big hops of an IPA or chocolate/coffee/malty taste of a stout or porter, the taste is closer to a cognac, with notes of butterscotch, maple syrup and plums. In an industry that tends to overuse the phrase "unique," Utopias actually lives up to the term.
Utopias was actually born from another Samuel Adams creation — 1992's Triple Bock, the beer industry's first barrel aged beer and one of Koch's first efforts to really think outside of the traditional brewing box.
"Everyone thinks businesses are economically rational all the time. Some are. A lot aren't. We've been successful following our passions."
"My epiphany was there were some great beer styles that nobody has made," says Koch. "I realized 'Wait a minute: porters, stouts [and] pilsners weren't around when God made rocks and trees. They were the product of human passion and ingenuity. Why should I accept that that passion and ingenuity no longer exists? Let me rethink the craft brewing paradigm.' ... So I made the first extreme beer. It was the Star Trek of beers. I took it where no beer had gone before."
Triple Bock (which sold for the then-unheard of price of $100 per case) "was a jumpstart for innovation," says Koch. In 1999 the beer morphed into "Millenium," and in 2002 it took on its final form, adopting the name Utopias.
An iconic brand
It's not just the ABV or the price that separates Utopias. Even the way the beer is created is outside of the normal beer-making methods.
Typically, beer-making is fairly by the numbers, following the same general steps. Utopias, though, takes a variety of cask-conditioned beers (which results in a gentler level of carbonation and a rounder mouthfeel), then transfers them to barrels, ranging from bourbon to rum to sherry to calvados (an apple brandy).
When it's time to make a batch, beer makers at Samuel Adams then blend those barreled beers together. Some have been aging for 23 to 24 years. Some for 15, and other varietals ranging all the way down to some barrels that have been holding beer for just three months.
The release of a new Utopias every two years is something the beer drinking world eagerly awaits, even if most people would never consider spending that much on a bottle. But with that level of consumer excitement and goodwill, why not make Utopias an annual release? Koch says he learned a while ago that sometimes less is more.
"It's an event, from our point of view, in terms of brewing and blending, but it's a lot of work," he says. "We've got a lot of cool things we're doing, so I've said, 'Let's not do it every year.' We did Triple Bock that way, and it was a lot of work, and at the end I said it's OK to not do it every year. I know we could sell a lot more, but it's OK."
— By Chris Morris, special to CNBC.com